Understanding POV is essential, or ought to be.
― Arthur Herzog
When we pick up a book to read, we expect to become lost in words, feel as if we are part of the unfolding events. How we participate in those events is up to the author and the point of view the author has chosen.
“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”
— Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
The opening paragraph of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is considered one of the consummate openings in literature. Immediately, you know a great deal about the main character. A private detective who is “neat, clean, shaved and sober, which indicates he is often not and that he is meeting a wealthy individual, likely a client. This paragraph also indicates that you are going to experience the story through his eyes.
Point of view is defined by “Literary Devices” as “the angle of considering things, which shows us the opinion, or feelings of the individuals involved in a situation. In literature, point of view is the mode of narration that an author employs to let the readers “hear” and “see” what takes place in a story, poem, essay, etc.”
Point of View Syles
“First-person narrators is the way I know how to write a book with the greatest power and chance of artistic success.”
The paragraph from The Big Sleep is an example of writing in the first-person point of view. We are experiencing the events through the eyes of the main character or at times, a secondary character, who is also the narrator.
We see what the narrator sees, only witnessing the actions of others but never knowing the thoughts of other characters unless they choose to disclose their thoughts through dialogue.
There are advantages to using this form of view. For the reader, it allows an intimate feeling with the character, you see, sense, smell, taste, what the character does. As a writer, the connection is personal, the character becomes an extension of your own persona. You see the events through your own eyes, tell the story in your own words. There are fewer filters as there would be if the writer were observing another character as in Third-person POV. In first-person, the character can express the thoughts they are feeling directly to the reader and provide exposition directly though memories.
While there are advantages to first-person POV, there are also disadvantages. The reader can never be certain of the narrator’s motives. Is this character being truthful, is there bias in how they think, are they providing the entire story. The “unreliable narrator’ could misdirect the reader from the truth. It is also difficult for the reader to learn about the narrator’s description, not always necessary to the story but there are components of a character’s description that could impact a story.
This POV also presents only one side of the story, preventing both the reader and writer from seeing a broader view of the story and what the other characters are thinking. To capture the essence of the character, the writer must take care and skill to present the voice of the character, their mannerisms and how they speak to convey their personality to the reader. Another interesting aspect is that the reader will assume the narrator will survive the story which reduces the suspense.
One other note about first-person POV is that this style lends itself well to short stories where the impact of a single point of view can be effective. However, it takes a skilled writer to create a character strong enough to carry the entire story.
Some examples of novels in first person POV, in addition to Chandler’s The Big Sleep are Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises, and Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
Second Person Point of View:
Rarely seen in fiction novels, second-person POV is prevalent in non-fiction writing, especially instructional or how-to manuals, and in advertising. In fiction, the narrator is telling the story to the reader as if the reader is the main character.
Ginny Wiehardt, in her article on website thebalance.com, describes second person as “from the point of view of a narrative onlooker who is writing about you, the reader: ‘You went to school that morning.’”
While it is true that the reader will feel as if they are the subject of the story as it is directed at them, creating a storyline and characters to maintain the focus of the narrator is extremely difficult.
An example of second person in fiction is found in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Also called metafiction, this type of writing breaks the so-called fourth wall of theater or film by allowing the reader to be aware they are reading fiction. The first paragraph from Calvino’s work:
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, ‘No, I don’t want to watch TV!’ Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – ‘I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!’ Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: ‘I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!’ Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.”
Unique to say the least and why second- person POV is used in instructional manuals and advertising where the writer wishes to have the reader be the focus. The phrase “You first measure two cups of flour,” or an advertising slogan such as Hallmark’s “When you care enough to send the very best” or Nike’s “Just do it,” are examples.
Third-Person Point of View:
By far the most popular point of view used by writers and the most familiar to readers is third-person. This point of view detaches the narration from the characters and readers and is the most objective of all the points of view. Characterized by third-person pronouns, he and she, or by use of the characters names, readers are on the sidelines and not participating in the story only watching the events unfold from several perspectives.
There are sub-groups within the third-person point of view, the omniscient and the omniscient limited.
Omniscient is the “all-knowing” narrator who is aware of the thoughts and feeling of all the character. This narrator is the most objective (first-person the least) POV and therefore, trustworthy.
Example of Omniscient POV: (From Literary Devices.com)
Little Women (By Louisa May Alcott)
“Margaret, the eldest of the four, was sixteen, and very pretty, being plump and fair, with large eyes, plenty of soft brown hair, a sweet mouth, and white hands, of which she was rather vain. Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt … Elizabeth, or Beth, as everyone called her, was a rosy, smooth-haired, bright-eyed girl of thirteen, with a shy manner, a timid voice, and a peaceful expression, which was seldom disturbed … “
“Alcott uses an omniscient narrator, as we hear a disembodied voice knowing everyone’s feelings and thoughts, exploring all characters from inside and out. Here, the narrator gives a description of the March sisters.”
Limited Omniscient is the third- person POV that can only share the thoughts and feeling of one character at a time.
Example of Omniscient POV: (From Literary Devices.com)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (By J.K. Rowling)
“Harry had taken up his place at wizard school, where he and his scar were famous … but now the school year was over, and he was back with the Dursleys for the summer, back to being treated like a dog that had rolled in something smelly … The Dursleys hadn’t even remembered that today happened to be Harry’s twelfth birthday. Of course, his hopes hadn’t been high?”
“Rowling employs omniscient limited narrator voice, in which readers see what Harry observes, and know what he feels and thinks. They are, however, unable to follow what the Dursleys feel or think about Harry.”
Third-person omniscient is a powerful tool for an author and provides the richest experience for the reader. Knowing all of the information available allows the reader to connect with the characters interaction and become more involved in the story’s plot.
This POV does have one drawback, it does not provide the intimacy between the character and the reader that first-person POV does. It falls on the writer to create that relationship.
Deep Point of View
There is a relatively new (if you consider twenty years new) point of view being used increasingly in the self-publishing world.
Deep POV is third-person limited but takes the reader even deeper into the head of the character. It is designed for the reader to feel and see the story directly through the eyes of the character. This POV grew out of the show vs. tell movement where showing what is happening to the character is emphasized rather than simply telling the reader what is happening.
Dialogue tags and phrases like he thought or felt or saw are eliminated from this point of view which increases the intimacy with the reader.
“Melissa reluctantly stuck her hand into the pouch. She thought that there was no way she could back gracefully out of the dare. She wiggled her fingers around. She felt slime ooze between them.”
Deep POV –
“Melissa reluctantly stuck her hand into the pouch. There was no way she could back gracefully out of the dare. She wiggled her fingers around, wincing when slime oozed between them.”
There is some debate regarding the use of deep POV and changing POV’s within the same scene. I know of an author who can accomplish that skill masterfully and doesn’t appear to be head-hopping. However, most experts recommend not to change POV in the same scene.
One of the best testimonials about deep POV I have read is from romance writer Michele Sayre:
“For me, Deep POV removes any sense of someone standing around telling the readers what’s going on. Instead, the reader is seeing what’s happening in the scene along with their thoughts and feelings.
I use Deep POV, which is third-person because I like the freedom to switch POV in a scene if I feel the need to. In first-person, I would have to have a scene break to switch POV, and that would throw off the pace of a scene for me. Also, since Deep POV is a limited POV (in that the reader only knows what the character knows in that particular scene), it can prevent info-dumping like you might see in an omniscient-type POV. So for me, third-person limited Deep POV keeps the pace up, info-dumping out of the way, and completely brings the reader into the POV character without any authorial input.”
Regardless of the point of view, you choose to write in, there is one very important consideration. Maintain the point of view that you choose throughout the entire piece. The greatest loss of credibility for a writer is to confuse the reader is to switch points of view within a story. Consistency is the key to a clear point of view and a satisfied reader.
Please listen to my interview about this article with host Paul Reeves on Dr. Paul’s Family Talk, now on Impact Radio USA.
Podcast: Writing Your First Novel—Part Seven: Point of View
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